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Reversal of Summary Judgment on 55-Day New York SHU Placement Claim

The Second Circuit Court of Appeals has reversed the grant of summary judgment to a prison hearings officer in a lawsuit concerning a prisoner’s improper placement in administrative segregation.

On January 3, 2001, New York state prisoner Samuel Davis was incarcerated at the Elmira Correctional Facility when Sergeant Perry recommended his confinement in administrative segregation. “Perry had received confidential information from four separate sources in the previous two weeks indicating that Davis was involved in fights and extortion. The informants asserted that Davis used a weapon on occasion and targeted weaker inmates from whom he extorted commissary.”

At a January 16, 2001 hearing, prison hearing officer David Barrett relied on Perry’s report without interviewing Perry or the informants, stating that he trusted Perry’s “ability to assess their credibility.” Barrett agreed with Perry’s recommendation and ordered Davis transferred to administrative segregation in the Special Housing Unit (SHU). Davis remained in SHU for 55 days, from January 3, 2001 until his February 26, 2001 transfer to general population at Attica Correctional Facility.

On March 6, 2001, Davis prevailed on his administrative appeal “based on the absence of testimony from the author of the recommendation (Perry), or an assessment by Barrett of the reliability of the confidential information.”

Davis sued Barrett in federal court, alleging that his due process rights were violated at his administrative hearing. The district court granted summary judgment to Barrett, finding “that a 55-day period was insufficient to establish a liberty interest in the absence of conditions more onerous than normal for SHU.” The court “concluded that Davis had not dem-onstrated a liberty interest sufficient to trigger due process protection.”

On appeal, the Second Circuit began by rejecting Barrett’s argument that Davis failed to exhaust his administrative remedies as required by the Prison Litigation Reform Act (PLRA).
The appellate court held that Davis was not required to file a grievance. “Davis’s successful appeal on his administrative hearing constitutes exhaustion under the PLRA for pur-poses of rendering his due process claim ripe for adjudication in federal court,” the Second Circuit wrote.

The Court of Appeals then reversed the district court’s decision that Davis did not possess a liberty interest, because that finding “failed to premise the truthfulness of Davis’s allegations concerning the conditions of his confinement (as op-posed to the conditions generally mandated by prison regulations), and did not adequately compare those conditions in the general population and other segregated confinement.”

The Second Circuit also found “a number of factual disputes about the conditions of Davis’s confinement” that could not be resolved on summary judgment. Finally, the district court had “failed to conduct a thorough comparison of the al-leged conditions of Davis’s confinement with those of the general population.”

Accordingly, the Court of Appeals remanded “for further fact-finding on the issue of the actual conditions of Davis’s confinement in comparison to ordinary prison conditions.” The Court noted, however, “that a determination that Davis was not subjected to atypical conditions giving rise to a liberty interest would obviate the need to reach the ultimate issue of whether the process employed during his administrative hearing complied with the requirements of due process.” See: Davis v. Barrett, 576 F.3d 129 (2d Cir. 2009).

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Related legal case

Davis v. Barrett